If we want a beloved community, we must stand for justicebell hooks
The proliferation of gun culture and violence in the United States of America has exacted a devastating toll on our students, families, and communities. Gun culture, which contributes to the second leading cause of death in children and teens,1 has pulled us into perpetual grief, leaving us in wait until the next tragic and violent event. Guns enable a culture of violence, rage, and toxic beliefs to flourish. Yet, there are no seriously comprehensive reforms or legislation designed to curtail gun culture, to envision gun violence as an assault on public health, or to protect our children. The solution is to address the deep roots2 of this culture while also developing antiracist policy to restrict the ease and frequency with which people access guns.
Gun violence is a multifarious issue. For one thing, gun violence can and does occur in a variety of communities. Mass shootings, which understandably dominate media attention, account for 1% of incidents involving gunfire on school grounds, a very small number. 56% of gun violence on school grounds consists of homicides and assaults. These incidents include mass shootings, but more often involve escalating arguments, domestic violence, and robberies. Another 20% of incidents involving guns on school grounds are unintentional. 12% of gunfire incidents on school grounds are suicide deaths and attempts. And the remaining 12% are incidents involving law enforcement and legal intervention. All of this data, courtesy of an exhaustive and collaborative report3 by Everytown for Gun Safety and America’s two largest teacher unions, indicates that children and teens experience gun violence in smaller settings and with greater frequency than mass shootings.
This mischaracterization of gun violence has led to increased police presence in schools, heightened surveillance, and even calls for arming teachers. We know that police in schools are harmful to Black and Brown students4 and that teachers do not want or need to be armed.5 While these measures are said to create the presence of safety, they actually erode school culture and exacerbate the school-to-prison pipeline. And these measures are far more likely to exist in schools with predominantly Black and Brown populations than white ones. After both the 1999 Columbine High School shooting and the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, Congress earmarked federal dollars for School Resource Officers (SROs) in schools across the country. But those officers were disproportionately employed by schools with predominantly Black and Brown populations than white ones.6 There is no evidence to support that school police officers are actually making schools safer. Hinging a national response to gun violence on militarism has done nothing to reduce gun violence in schools, but rather subjects Black and Brown students to trauma.
That data is an observation of gun violence on school grounds, but we are well aware that gun violence affects children outside school as well. Nine million children lived in a community that experienced at least one fatal shooting from 2015-2019.7 Out of that nine million, Black children were 4.4 times more likely to be exposed to gun violence than white children. This number has increased to 11 million since the first year of the pandemic and is disproportionately seen in Black and Brown communities. These violent conditions are born out of a combination of factors which include segregated cities, unemployment, and disinvestment in communities. The consequences affect access to community resources and leave Black and Brown children traumatized. Their experiences must be included in solution-building. A racially conscious structural framework is vital in reducing and eradicating gun violence.
Our youth continue to be susceptible to the culture of violence and guns, continually driven by the interests of pro-gun activists, law enforcement, and ineffectual politicians. And we lack the data to paint a comprehensive picture of the damage unleashed by gun violence on our most vulnerable. Legislation like the Dickey Amendment has historically made it impossible for researchers like the CDC to study gun violence.8 And so, the national strategy to address this violence relies exclusively on measures like background checks and red flag laws, which do more to criminalize mental illness9 than protect children. Those strategies are more like bandaids and fail to address the root of why gun violence is more prevalent in the United States than in countless other countries around the world.10 We must begin identifying the individual and societal factors that encourage a violent and corrosive state. We can be harm-reductive by intimately involving the communities most affected by gunfire incidents. This cycle of violence, followed by apathy and acquiescence, can be interrupted by reimagining gun violence as a public health crisis rather than a war.
All children deserve a safe place to receive a free, high-quality education. Achieving such a goal requires shifting policy to protect Black youth from practices that, at their very core, are inhumane. We’ve identified four areas of policy change that ensure all students have access to spaces that nurture their well-being and development.
- Pressure federal and state governments to reinvest funds that support gun violence research. We must begin imagining gun violence as a public health problem that requires harm reduction strategies at the individual, community, and societal levels.
- Raise the age of gun ownership, mandatory waiting periods for all gun purchases, ban assault rifles and tighten safe storage laws.
- Pressure state governments and school districts to reinvest funds so that more counselors and support staff are allocated to schools and fewer SROs.
- Pressure legislators to incentivize an anti-racist approach to enforcing gun policy laws. Any gun reform restrictions must apply to everyone, not just people of color.
- Study: Kids More Likely To Die From Cars And Guns In U.S. Than Elsewhere (NPR)
- These deep roots include unemployment, criminalization, militarization, poor healthcare, etc. We can draw links between other issues that plague our communities and spiraling gun violence.
- Keeping Our Schools Safe: A Plan to Stop Mass Shootings and End Gun Violence in American Schools (Everytown for Gun Safety)
- Why Is the Child Crying? (The Expectations Project)
- What Do the Teachers Want? (California State University, Northridge)
- Ending Student Criminalization and the School-to-Prison Pipeline (The Education Justice Research and Organizing Collaborative (EJ-ROC), New York University)
- Black Kids Were Already Exposed to More Gun Violence Than White Kids. The Pandemic Widened That Gap (TIME)
- Why Can’t the U.S. Treat Gun Violence as a Public-Health Problem? (The Atlantic)
- Untangling Gun Violence from Mental Illness (The Atlantic)
- What a Socialist Approach to Gun Violence Should Look Like (Jacobin)